HENRY SY SR.: A SAGA OF STUNNING SUCCESS

At 5 in the morning of Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019, Henry Sy Sr. woke up unusually early in his Forbes Park home in Makati. Wake-up time was usually 7:30 a.m.   He was told to go back to bed as it was still dark.  He did.  But he never woke up again. 

“Tatang died in his sleep, peacefully,” said Teresita Sy-Coson, his eldest child and now the virtual matriarch for a $20 billion fortune.  Thus ended the most amazing saga of entrepreneurship in one of Asia’s most dynamic economies, the Philippines, home to the world’s 12th largest consumer market.   Henry was 94.

From an amazing rags-to-riches(t) narrative, Henry Sy passed into the realm of legends to make his people and his country proud, as well as to amaze, inspire and empower thousands of other aspiring entrepreneurs, that with true grit, relentless hard work, and magisterial ambition one can produce tremendous successes—even while starting young with barely an education and/or with just—ten centavos.

Tatang Henry began doing business at 12 landing in Manila by boat in 1936 from Xiamen, with only ten centavos in his pocket, but in search of his father and a better life.  He spoke no English and no Tagalog.  His mother, Tan O Sia, had told Henry on the day of his departure, “don’t look back.”

Henry grew the ten centavos, a pittance, into a $20 billion wealth today, making him the richest Filipino, the ninth richest in Asia and the 52nd richest in the world.

In the Philippines, he had no equal.  The next richest Filipino, of Spanish descent, only has $4.8 billion, most of it inherited third generation wealth.

Biggest conglomerate

Today, Sy’s holding company, SM Investments Corp. (SMIC) is the Philippines’ largest conglomerate in market capitalization of P1.168 trillion ($22 billion).  The next biggest conglomerate has a market cap of just $10 billion. His BDO Unibank is the largest Philippine bank with P2.89 trillion in resources (18% of the system), P2.34 trillion in deposits (19% of the system), and P568.62 billion in market cap, making it the most valuable local bank.

Henry’s retail network is formidable – 71 malls, visited, on a good day, by 6 million people; 2,212 retail outlets, and 1,843 bank branches.

Additionally, he has 338 cinema screens.

In the first nine months of 2018, SMIC had revenues of P307.4 billion (on track for P409 billion sales whole year), and profits of P26.2 billion (P35 billion if annualized).  In 2017, SMIC was the Philippines’ fourth largest in sales (P396.15 billion) and fourth most profitable (P51.5 billion).

In 1936, Henry spent half of his ten centavos to buy a loaf of bread in the boat.  But he fell ill because it had butter. Fortunately, he befriended another boy who found P20 lying on the boat’s deck. That sustained them during the perilous journey.

He cried upon seeing his father

When young Henry first saw his father, he cried.  “There has to be a better life than this,” Henry told me in one interview eight years ago.  His father’s store in Calle Echague was no larger than two square meters.  It was multi-functional—a store by day, a bed by night, with the same table where goods were displayed serving as bed by nightfall.  Every morning his father bought goods in Divisoria and carried them barefoot to Echague.  It was backbreaking unrelenting work.

From his father, Henry learned one thing – the importance of discipline, hard work, and good credit.

China roots

Henry was born in Xiamen, China, on Oct. 25, 1924, as Sy Chi Sieng (in Chinese “to attain ultimate success”).  The village was Ang-khue in the Dieng-ho municipality of Jinjiang country.

Sy Siu Tek, Henry’s father, was a diligent trader who sailed to Manila for better opportunities.  He had put up a small business and remitted money back to Xiamen.

Henry attended Grade 1 at the Anglo-Chinese School in Quiapo but he was in such hurry he asked his teacher how he could speed up schooling. The reply: Have a grade of 90.  He did. He finished grade school in five years, at the top of his class, remarkable given that he had no textbooks and could only afford second-hand ones.

By 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the Sys already had two stores, which happily were not looted by war-induced looting. Under Japanese rule, Henry, now 17, got a bike and busied himself doing the buying and selling for the two stores.  “In good times, I do my usual work.   In bad times, I work harder.”

After the Battle of Manila, one of his two stores was razed, the other looted.  The city was in ruins. His father left Manila back to China.

How the stores began

With post-War Manila, Henry had saved a few hundred pesos. He found a new business hub – Plaza Miranda.  He began buying cigarettes by the cartons from American GIs and selling them by the pack, making a peso per pack. He also went into selling scrap metal and other odds and ends.

Later, with rented space from Don Vicente Rufino on Calle Carriedo, Henry built his first store, selling anything he could.  It was also his house by night.  US shoe importers offered to sell him shoes by the job lot.  The business prospered.  With a partner, Lao Kang, he opened Plaza Shoe Store and a second, bigger store, Park Avenue Store.

Fixed pricing

Henry introduced innovations in retailing like fixed pricing, after a Filipino GI walked into one of his stores and bought a pair of shoes without haggling.  Henry felt guilty the GI was overcharged.

With two stores, Henry quit night school, finishing only a two-year Associate in Commercial Science at FEU.   In 1949, he got his first bank loan, P1 million, from Bank of China.  Today, he owns the bank, in addition to BDO.

In the 1955s and 1960s, Henry made trips to the United States to learn many things about retailing.  The US had become the mecca of shopping centers, with the rise of Macy’s (1858), Sears (1893), and JC Penney (1903) following the post-War economic boom.  Henry also travelled to Europe to observe the latest trends in fashion and retailing. 

Renamed Shoemart in 1958

In 1958, Tiger Bazaar, a partnership with Francisco Chong, was renamed Shoemart.  It took off.  A second store, on Carriedo Street, was opened.

Henry introduced more innovations – sales girls dressed like stewardesses and very important, air-conditioning “so shoppers would feel like they are in America.”

By 1959, Henry, after nine years of marriage to Felicidad, a teenage crush, had six children – Teresita (1950), Elizabeth (1952), Henry Jr. (1953), Hans (1955), Herbert (1956), and Harley (1959).  They are the new management team today.

Henry’s older brother, Chi Pan, soon joined their father in the Philippines, and young Henry began then to dream of what he might also accomplish in that distant land.

“From the very start, at the age of 10,”  Henry recounted, “I knew I had the drive and determination to make something of myself,” Henry recalled of his journey in 1936 to Manila.

His mother’s “Don’t Look Back” was not to weaken the son’s resolve to leave. 

“Usually, when you come from China,” he recalled, “You come with cousins, friends, together, a group. I came alone, by myself.”

After some processing by the Bureau of Immigration on Engineer Island off Manila Bay, Henry walked his way to Quiapo and found his father’s store on Calle Echague (now Carlos Palanca Sr.).

In grade school, Henry was at the top of his class and was a natural leader. In his neighborhood, he became friends with a boy named Lao Kang.  Another boyhood friend was Juvenal Sanso, later a famous painter.

The Sanso family lived in the more affluent Paco district, but the children often played on Calle Echague where the family business, Arte Español, was located.

At the beginning of the Second World War, many residents of Manila fled the city. The Sys, however, had nowhere to go. “There was nowhere for people like us to go back to but China,” recalled Henry. So they remained in Echague and continued running their stores as best as they could. Those were tense days. “We did not know how the Japanese would treat us,” recalled Henry. 

At 17, Henry acquired a karitela and hired someone to operate it, giving him additional income with which to buy a brand-new bike from a Japanese. 

Future wife

With his bicycle, Henry began what became a lifelong friendship with a 16-year-old girl from Quiapo—Felicidad Tan, the future Mrs. Henry Sy.

Born Tan Siong Ha in Manila on May 18, 1928, Felicidad is the eldest child of Tan Chi Kieng and Yu Beng Jit, Chinese immigrants who came to the Philippines to improve their fortune. 

Felicidad was a dutiful achi, or eldest sister, who helped support her family during the Japanese occupation by working as a sidewalk vendor. While selling lace and embroidery outside Quiapo Church, she noticed Henry hanging out with Lao Kang. “Parati silang nagbibisikleta sa harapan namin,” she recalls. “Diyan lang sila, daldalan, kwentuhan, si Lao Kang at saka si Mr. Sy, every Friday.” [They were always cycling in front of us. There they were, Lao Kang and Mr. Sy, chatting away every  Friday.] Despite his attempts to get her attention, Felicidad refused to speak to Henry. “I didn’t want to make friends. I’m stubborn that way,” she explains with some humor.

On Feb. 3, 1945, US forces attacked Manila, which became a war zone for a month. The Sys fled to Novaliches, staying there over a week before returning to Manila.

Felicidad and her family remained in the city. She saw their home destroyed during the Battle of Manila.  They fled to Quiapo Church and stayed there for three days before transferring to a cousin’s house on Barbosa (now A. Bautista Street).

One day, as Felicidad stood at the doorway of her cousin’s house, she saw a familiar figure limping down the street. It was Henry.  He had been wounded by a shrapnel in the bombing of Ayala Bridge.

The Battle of Manila reduced the city to rubble.  At least 50,000 Filipinos died. 

The Sys returned from Novaliches to find that one of their stores was razed, and the other one, looted. Their spirit broken, Henry’s father and brother left the Philippines and returned to China despite the economic uncertainties there.  Henry stayed. 

“I held on to my convictions,”  he explained his ability to succeed in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. “By nature, I am curious and adventurous. I like the excitement of change and new and better ideas.”

Bold with dreams and vision

“While I am not big with words,” he said, “I am big and bold with my dreams and vision.”

Post-War Manila saw Henry buying cigarettes by the carton from American GIs and selling them by the pack. Felicidad recalls Henry’s earliest business venture. “Diyan siya sa kanto ng Plaza Miranda, sa bangketa. Ang benta pa-piso-piso. One pack is piso pero may kita na siya. Malaki na ang piso noon.”       (There he was on the corner of Plaza Miranda, on the sidewalk. He made money a peso at a time. He sold one pack for one peso, but that was enough to make a profit. A peso was worth something back then.) 

Henry approached Don Vicente Lim Rufino who owned a number of properties at Plaza Miranda. 

Felicidad describes that meeting:

“His shoes had holes. His clothes were old. Don Rufino did not look down on him. He gave Henry a chance.”  He agreed to lease to Henry a property on Calle Carriedo. There, Henry built a stall that served as his store by day and his home by night. Henry continued to buy and sell whatever came his way and managed to stay afloat. Before long, he was approached by American shoe importers who offered to sell him shoes by the job lot.  Accepting their offer, he entered into the shoe business. He and Lao Kang became business partners, pooling their savings to buy a karitela for transporting the shoes they bought and sold.

The new business performed exceptionally well. Henry began to earn enough to buy his first car, a second-hand Chrysler, for P1,000. He later traded it for a brand new model. 

At  28, Henry decided to go to college.   In 1952, he enrolled at Far Eastern University and took up commerce. 

Meanwhile, he made enough money to lease more properties from Don Rufino. He teamed up with Lao Kang and the latter’s brothers to open Plaza Shoe Store. 

“I thought that if I sold a pair of shoes to every Filipino,” said Henry, “I would be a successful man.”

Henry and Lao Kang opened their own shoe store, Paris Shoe Store, which was followed by a second and bigger store, Park Avenue Store.  

Henry and Lao Kang worked with energy and enthusiasm running their Paris and Park Avenue stores.

On March 30, 1950, Henry married Felicidad.  Their ninong was his venerable landlord, Don Rufino. They wed at the San Miguel Church and held the reception at Manila Hotel. 

With two stores, Henry was forced to give up schooling. He explained: “I did not finish a four-year course in college, only the two-year Associate in Commercial Science… I had to stop schooling because the shoe-selling business took all of my time.” 

“(At China Bank), my credit line was approved by Mr. Yap Tian Siang at their old head office on Juan Luna Street corner Dasmariñas Street.” At the time, who would have believed that Henry would one day be a major stockholder of the bank that gave him his first loan?

No easy money

For Henry, “there is no such thing as overnight success or easy money.”

Around 1949, an acquaintance, Senen Mendiola, a San Beda graduate, began working as Henry’s accountant and assistant. 

Senen provided Henry and Lao Kang with much needed help. Furthermore, he shared Henry’s appetite learning the business inside and out.  

Henry and Senen would visit the stores in Escolta Street to observe operations. They would watch shoppers and talk to the sales ladies, learning as much as they could about retailing. The two became good friends and in later years, Senen’s family also became deeply involved in Henry’s businesses. Senen’s wife Josefina would play a crucial role in the development and expansion of SM in Cubao; their son Jorge continued his mother’s legacy.  Senen sat on the board of a number of Henry’s companies for many years.

The first million

Before reaching 30, Henry had made his first million. He said to himself: “Only the first million is difficult. After that, the rest is easy. There are countless ways to make more money. Only your willingness to work, your imagination, and time can limit the ways.”

By the early 1950s, Henry and Lao Kang had expanded.  Aside from the two stores, the partners opened in 1948, Globe Drug Store, and later a soda fountain, acquired from the Sison family of the much-enjoyed Sison Ice Drop. 

In 1954, Henry and Lao Kang decided to divide the business. Lao Kang kept Globe Drug Store and Paris Shoe Store. 

Henry kept the soda fountain and Park Avenue where Lao Kang remained a shareholder until it closed in 1991. Henry later sold the soda fountain to focus on shoes.

In 1955, to Henry, America was the latest word in retailing.  Going to New York was not easy.  A propeller plane took almost 40 hours, with six stopovers.

Henry went to New York to secure a steady supply of shoes. For three months, he met with “jobbers,” or wholesalers, in New York and Boston, eventually working out several deals to buy the last season’s shoes by the job lot. “I became their biggest buyer, Henry said with pride. “I used to buy thousands of pairs.”  He negotiated by his lonesome self.

Henry had a second, more ambitious reason for going to the States. “I had a plan to one day establish a chain of maybe 50 shoe stores,” he said. “I wanted to learn about marketing, supplies, and how to go about setting up a chain.” He observed the development of suburban shopping centers, and saw how retail was no longer confined to downtown business districts. “I saw shopping centers on the rise in New York and different cities… I visited them to learn how they operate.” His research  took him from one location to another where he tirelessly photographed facades, lobbies, and displays for reference.

Henry’s trip to the States was an education, and in the years to come, he would apply the lessons he learned there.

Fifteen years after war ended, Manila’s landscape was changing.  Quezon City and Makati began to take shape. An elliptical road led to the Batasang Pambansa complex.

Once a sleepy swampland, Makati began to attract the elite and a burgeoning middle class. The Manila Polo Club and the Manila Golf Club moved to Makati. Forbes Park was a gated residential community for the rich.

What became known as the Central Business District of Makati began as the “Theatre Quadrant,” where the famed Rizal Theatre stood beside a park with a lagoon and an aviary. 

More and more families were moving into their new homes in the upscale villages of Forbes Park, San Lorenzo, and Urdaneta Village.

Henry continued his travels, in the mid-1950s and 1960s. “My travels made up for what I missed in school,” he said. “I call it my social university.” He went to trade fairs in Europe, and frequently to the US, observing the latest in fashion, store trends, retailing developments.

In 1958, Tiger Bazaar, a partnership with Francisco  Chong, was renamed Shoemart.  It boomed and a second store, on Carriedo Street,  was opened.

The success of the Shoemart stores was driven by Henry’s desire to attract more customers and offer them the best shopping experience.   He hired attractive sales ladies, well groomed and well-trained, like stewardesses.  He himself designed window displays.  And he introduced something unheard of in retail, air-conditioning, which became a big draw. 

Henry paid attention to the comfort of his customers who, in turn, were thrilled and shopped amid the modern amenities. 

In the late 1950s, Sys had lived in a modest house on Pennsylvania Street (now Leon Guinto). Teresita remembered: “Our rent at that time was about P120 a month. It was a small  house. I revisited it in 2006 and it was very small pala, but when we were small, it seemed big.” 

Elizabeth added: “There were three bedrooms. One was our parent’s bedroom and the other we were all crammed into. We slept on the wooden floor on banig [woven mats].”

The girls went to Quiapo Anglo Chinese School, the boys went to Xavier School (Kuang Chi) on Echague. 

Some days, they would stop by their maternal grandfather’s shoe store on Carriedo after school and do their homework there until it was time to head home. Life was simple.

The children would run errands for their mother, buying items for her at the neighborhood sari-sari stores. “We took public transportation,” said Teresita. “When I was about five or six years old, I would ride the jeep with my mom.” 

Of these early years, Elizabeth recalled happy Sundays in Luneta with the family. “We would picnic on Dewey Boulevard with my dad,” she said. “He would lay down on a mat and rest while we children would run around and play. We would also snack on corn bought from a vendor.”

Teresita recalled what it was like to grow up with an industrious father: “When he was working, he was working really hard,” she said. “He would always tell me, ‘I work so hard and I wish you would all grow up fast and help me.’ So I remember when I was a teenager, I sent my dad a present and signed it ‘from your future assistant’.”

Forbes Park lot

Despite the success of Park Avenue and the two Shoemart stores in Manila, Henry was looking south to Makati.  He bought a lot in North Forbes Park for the princely sum of P45 per square meter.

Henry saw Makati’s huge potential. Having witnessed the development of shopping centers in the US, he knew that stores in the Philippines would also increase in size. 

Downtown Manila was already congested and could not accommodate expansion. Makati on the other hand, with only a few existing stores, was wide open. Henry approached Francisco Chong and broached the idea of opening a third Shoemart in Makati, but Francisco did not agree. They decided to dissolve their partnership, amicably. Francisco kept the store on Rizal Avenue, renaming it Shoe World.  Henry kept the store on Carriedo and the rights to the name  Shoemart.

In 1961, Henry joined the Apex Investment group where he met lawyer Ismael Estrella, who would serve as outside legal counsel for Henry for the next 49 years, until today.

Henry and his family moved to North Forbes Park in 1962 and a year later, Shoemart Makati opened its doors to the public. He recalled, “When I opened my first store in Makati, my shoes suppliers, mostly from Marikina, and fellow shoe store owners from downtown Manila came to congratulate me. But some guests said behind my back, ‘Malugi si Henry dito [Henry will go bankrupt here].” But Henry was certain that he made the right decision. 

“I saw the development of Makati from the time when there was only one building on Ayala Avenue. I saw the potential of the place and made my investments,” he said. His belief in Makati was so strong that, in addition to establishing Shoemart there, he leased several more properties around the commercial center.

Family affair

Shoemart Makati, despite its size, was very much a family affair. “My mom helped my dad… In fact, she was always at the counter,” related Elizabeth. Felicidad said that the children helped, too. “I always pulled my children in after they finished their classes… Before, yung mga babae, sa baba, sa cash registers. [Before, the girls worked downstairs at the cash registers.] Yung mga lalaki [The boys], they would go upstairs, to the stockroom, to work with the stock boys… After helping me, we would go home together. Isang kotse lang kasi. [We had only one car, you see.]”

Things were quiet in the first few years of operations. Makati’s commercial center served the villages in the area. “Not many customers,” noted Henry. “They didn’t use to shop here yet. You would see only a few establishments. The good thing was that development was starting.” Other businesses were now looking to set up shop in the budding commercial center.

Henry started erecting buildings in the other commercial lots he had leased before. “People began to take interest in what was then called the Makati Commercial Center,” he said. Manila-based appliance store  Automatic Center was among his first tenants, along with Alemars bookstore, the Dulcinea pastry shop, and the Joanne Drew Slimming Salon. Many more followed and Henry decided to expand further. He built a showroom for furniture companies, among which was the reestablished Arte Español. The center continued to grow and in a decade, Makati would become Metro Manila’s shopping and financial capital.

Henry kept growing his business and attracting new customers. He continued introducing new retail concepts such as the Shoemart Card, a precursor to today’s bank credit cards.

At a time when cash was practically the only medium of retail and commerce, the Shoemart Card allowed customers to pay for their purchases using a line of credit, care of a Shoemart-approved personal guarantor. The card was a success and ushered in huge sales for Shoemart Makati.

Henry opened Shoemart Cubao in 1967 and the Manila Royal Hotel in Echague in 1969.  Building the hotel, he began professional relationships with Dennis Abcede and Antolin Paule, construction managers. 

A made man

By the 1960s, Henry was a made man.  But he pursued grander plans.  From the late 1960s to the 1970s, other commercial areas sprouted, Greenhills, Ortigas and Araneta Cubao east of the city.

By the 1970s, the Sys had settled well in Forbes Park, enjoying its genial, leafy and sprawling surroundings.

It was a happy time for the Sy children. They rode their bicycles around the village and played basketball with neighbors like Joey Concepcion and Greggy Araneta while a teenaged Lea Navarro kept score. “We grew up with non-Chinese neighbors,” remarked Harley, and the arrangement was free of problems.

There was, however, one big difference between the Sys and their neighborhood barkada: “One difference was that in high school or even in grade school, in our free time, we would go to the store and help out,” said  Harley. “I think it was a joke in the village that we always had to go to the store to work.”

The habit of helping with the business was ingrained in the Sy children at an early age. Teresita explained: “For us, sense of family is very important. From the time when we were growing up, we always had to do things together, as a family, and earn together, as a family. It was not  an individual thing.” 

Building the team

Hans added: “When we turned 13, we were all reminded “OK, you are now 13, you must come in on weekends to help in the store.’” Everyone helped out, at times after school during peak seasons. In the Sy household, the needs of the family and its business always came before individual needs.

Henry and Felicidad lived by the same strict standards that they set for their children. Henry was the hard worker who was out in the world making a living. “We didn’t really see that much of him,” said Elizabeth. “He was very serious about this business, he was very focused. Even then, we could see that nothing came between him and the business. He didn’t let personal vice or anything get in the way.”

Felicidad took care of the children. She was a stern disciplinarian who put a premium on scholarship and studies, inspired by her own father’s Confucian scholarship. Felicidad also made sure that the children were never idle. Helping out with the business became a way of life for the young Sys. Harley said, “We grew up not realizing that it was work. That was how my mom  brought us up. It’s the culture of getting you in the stream of work without realizing you are already inside it.”

The strict work ethic of the Sys had its merits. “Our dad kept saying, ‘In the future you’ll know why I’m asking you to do this,” said Herbert. “When we finished college, we knew what he was talking about. In our thesis, we were 10 times ahead of others because of our experience.” As the years passed, Henry’s vision became clear to the Sy children. “My dad had an objective,” said Herbert. “He needed a team… After he had trained all of us, we followed his example. We became his ‘duplicates.”

Simple way of life

Despite the fact that the Sys were by then well off, Henry and Felicidad held fast to a simple way of life where one works for what one gets. For instance, when the teenaged Sys wanted a billiard table, they all had to work for it. 

Harley remembered: “We had projects at home to earn the money. There was a tie-dye project one summer where we made tie-dyed T-shirts that we would sell at Shoemart. For every T-shirt we got 25 centavos or something. At the end, we pooled all our money and bought a billiard table.” 

Harley recalled trying to ask his father for a motorcycle back when he was in high school. “I was trying to negotiate,” he said, “but my dad just kept on nodding and didn’t  say anything, which means you won’t get it and there’s no point in arguing.”

The Sy children learned to work hard and be frugal, while learning also that money is never the ultimate goal. “Our parents taught us that money is not the overriding, most important thing in life,” Henry, Jr. said. What then was their goal? “Probably achievement.”

Henry’s and Felicidad’s thorough training paid off. With fatherly pride, Henry said of his children: “They have their own innate instincts and learn very quickly. I call them my teammates and they have each developed their own area of expertise in the business.” 

Today, all six of the Sy children are wholly committed to the business empire that their father built from scratch.

Expansion

Shoemart Makati continued to flourish in the early 1970s. “During the time, I was helping in Makati as a cash clerk,” shared Hans. “I remember one day we made a record P140,000 in sales and everybody started clapping.” The Cubao store was also doing well. Henry judged that the time was ripe for expansion.

“I could never make it big just selling shoes,” said Henry. At the time, there were simply not enough suppliers of shoes to meet Henry’s demand. The only way to grow was by diversifying the inventory. “I added value to the business by selling clothing and other accessories,” he said. His pegs for expansion were department stores he had visited during his US trips. “I studied the mass market department stores in the US such as Macy’s, he said. “I also looked at Bloomingdales and Saks, although those were higher-end stores. I decided to have the middle class—B and C—as my market because it is a much bigger than the A market.”

The move was not without its risks. “The business,” Henry explained, “could be risky and messy. If you carry many items and you don’t sell, you’re in trouble.” However, Henry had worked out a strategy to avoid stagnant inventory—foregoing big profit margins to keep stocks moving.

Launched in 1972, Shoemart Manila on Carlos Palanca Sr. Street (formerly Calle Echague) was transformed into the first of Henry’s department stores. Its immediate success inspired Henry to embarked on an even larger expansion in Makati.

Henry explained, “right after martial law was declared in 1972, there was heavy capital flight.” Bucking the trend, he opted to keep his money in the Philippines and invest in the expansion of the Makati store. 

The opening of the store in September 1975 was accompanied by dramatic corporate rebranding. Henceforth, all of Henry’s stores would be rechristened “SM Department Store,” or simply, “SM.”

SM Makati was the flagship store of SM with over 38,000 square meters of retail space. From its racks would spring fashion trends that would dictate what the metro would wear. 

Moreover, SM Makati introduced shoppers to the concept of one-stop shopping, a set-up intended to provide utmost customer convenience. The store offered an unprecedented merchandise mix ranging from shoes, clothing and cosmetics, to toys, gift items, records, and electrical appliances. 

It even featured a foreign exchange counter and a Filipiniana sector, both of which served the growing number of tourist groups from Japan and Hong Kong. In the basement was the country’s first fast food courts. SM Makati drew huge crowds and quickly became Henry’s most profitable store.

Of this triumph and others like it, Henry simply said, “Crises also produce opportunities.” 

In 1976, he bought Acme Savings Bank, with two branches, for P5 million. It is now Banco de Oro, the largest bank. 

SM Makati was booming, and Henry deemed it was time to build a department store in Cubao’s Araneta Center.

Hans recalled working on what was then considered an unbelievably ambitious project.  He asked his father, “Dad, how are we going to make money?’ So he explained… He got a paper napkin and started writing and explaining. ‘These are your sales, your cost, your margins, and this is the targeted profit. So by end of the day, you make this much money.’ Very simple.”

Henry would eventually gain fame for using paper napkins to work out complex business problems. Hans recalled that former Secretary of Finance Vicente Jayme once commented in a speech that it only takes one napkin for Henry Sy to completely understand an entire project.

SM Cubao opened its doors on Oct. 17, 1980.  The sprawling department store was a huge hit with the large pedestrian population of Cubao. Henry had done it again. He was by then, undoubtedly, one of the most successful retailers in the country.

Shopping mall

In 1981, Henry embarked on his most ambitious project yet—a shopping mall. He was going to construct a huge multi-level building, provide retail space for over 100 tenants, and put everything under one roof. The mall was to meet all the retail and recreational needs of the typical Filipino family. Henry dubbed it SM City. No one in the Philippine retail had ever done anything on this scale. “SM City was very large, approximately 125,000 square meter just for the main building,” said Dennis Abcede, who was managing the construction project. This was more than three times the size of SM Makati. 

But why put up such a huge structure on a nondescript location, in the 1980s, the junction of EDSA and North Avenue in Quezon City.

“It was a swampland,” protested Hans, a kangkongan.

 To Henry, however, the location was perfect, “a spot for a last shopping stop before the start of a trip to the north.”

Agreed Hans later,  “All major thoroughfares end there, but back then, nobody even bothered to look.” 

He remembers that even before SM Cubao opened, his father was already looking northward. “I remember he was on his La-Z-Boy and he was looking at a map of North EDSA. This was in 1978.” Henry was convinced of North EDSA’s potential, but most people coud not see past the kangkong [swamp cabbage].

There was yet another reason why many were sure that Henry’s grand project would be his downfall. 

The late 70s and early 80s were years of economic stagnation and political instability in the Philippines. 

Business was at a virtual standstill, and the lifting of martial law in 1981 did little to improve the economic climate. The assassination of Benigno Aquino on Aug. 21, 1983 plunged the Philippines into a deep recession. Domestic and foreign investment decreased dramatically, while capital flight from late August to December was estimated at $1 billion.  “At that time,” Henry, Jr. recalled, “everybody was trying to get out of the country.”

“During the worst of the crisis, we had five buildings going up in Metro Manila—SM City North EDSA, SM Harrison, SM Annex Makati, Magallanes de Galleria and Ritz Tower [the last two were residential real estate projects],” said Harley. “People said this would be my dad’s Waterloo. Apparently, however, Henry knew what he was doing.”

Henry was doing what he had always done during the worst of times: he was working harder. Harley said, “My dad would tell us, ‘In times of crisis, if you can do more, go for it.’” To illustrate this point, Henry would discuss how five competitors might fare during a crisis: two might close; one slows down. The other two might remain in business, but the competition is now half of what it used to be.

Henry spent P200 million for North EDSA.

“At that time, interest rates were around 40% and it seemed that my decision was poorly timed,” Henry recalled. “Just the same, I went ahead.”

SM City North EDSA opened in November 1985. “We had a tough time in the beginning getting tenants to fill up the place,” said Teresita. “It was a risky period in our country’s history. So we opened with only SM Department Store and very few mall tenants.” Starting slow turned out to be a wise move. “It was an instant success,” said Teresita.

Jollibee founder Tony Tan Caktiong and his brother William Tan never questioned Henry’s vision. Tony said: “We never had any doubts. We were confident it would work. When they brought us to the site, we saw the project was really big, but that it definitely had pulling power.” Other business owners and restaurateurs realized that SM City North EDSA was becoming the metro’s retail hotspot, and stores offering a myriad of good and services were soon open for business.

The country’s first Cineplex, with eight cinemas, opened on the mall’s third floor. This was a huge departure from previous theater formats, which were mostly largely capacity, stand-alone structures with no more than four cinemas. The SM Cineplex gave customers multi options all in one place. SM City North EDSA also introduced retail concepts such as a separate appliance center, which offered customers a greater variety of brands all in one area.

Henry had successfully taken all the best features of a fully developed commercial center and put it in one giant building. Never before had SM so completely lived up to its slogan “We’ve got it all for you!”

Henry said of his triumphs:

“As I envisioned it, SM City has become a major destination for people from the surrounding municipalities and provinces. It is ideally located because [it is located at the intersection] of major thoroughfares including one end of EDSA, Metro Manila’s busiest thoroughfare. It captures the flow of commuters from Pasay City, Makati City, Pasig City, Quezon City, and the provinces of Bulacan and Pampanga, through the North Luzon Expressway. It became a favorite and convenient shopping mall for residents of provinces north of Manila.”

SM North EDSA

SM City North EDSA became Henry’s biggest mall, with 460,000 sqm. Competing malls opened nearby, but SM City North EDSA continues to thrive, expanding from one building to five. With the success of this groundbreaking mall, Henry successfully rewrote the book on Philippine shopping, and staked his place at the very top of Philippine retail. “SM really became SM after North EDSA,” said Harley. “Before that, SM was just another store.”

SM City North EDSA epitomized everything Henry had learned about retail in 40 years. It combined great location with accessibility to public transport, an unparalleled variety of merchandise and services, cool and comfortable shopping space, and constant innovation. Hans said that the challenges of this first mall helped his father conceive of the time-honored formula that he would apply to ever grander plans in the future. “His formula is very general,” said Hans. “Just be true to yourself. If you believe in a business, then go into it. Imagine the worst  scenario, and if you can still sleep well and eat well, then go ahead.”

SM City may have been the high point of Henry’s decade, but many other notable projects took place in the 80s. SM Makati expanded to include an Annex, which housed a full range of household needs. In 1984, an SM Department Store opened in Harrison Plaza. Henry also embarked on the construction of a second mall, SM Centerpoint, on the corner of Aurora Boulevard and Araneta Avenue in Sta. Mesa.

By 1990, Henry retired as president but remained chairman.  He bought the Ortigas property where Megamall is now, but not after losing a bigger corner lot in a toss coin with John Gokongwei Jr.

Undeterred, Henry talked to the Que and Alba families who owned lots adjacent to his 5.4-hectare Ortigas property.  He now had 10.5 hectares on which to build Megamall which is a mile long and built in three years at a cost of P2 billion.

Megamall

Megamall opened on June 28, 1991. The largest mall in Asia at the time, it had two buildings connected by an enclosed bridge suspended over Julia Vargas Avenue. 

With five floors and a basement, the mall had 331,679 square meters of floor space. Apart from housing shops, restaurants, a huge SM Department Store, a supermarket, a food court and 12 cinemas, Megamall also featured bowling lanes, a covered car park for over 3,000 cars, and the Megatrade Hall, an innovation on that offered 4,647 square meters of space for trade expos and events. The mall also boasted the country’s first ice-skating rink.

“Very few people know this: I love skating,” Henry said. “I used to roller skate a lot in my youth on Taft Avenue in Manila. I want more people to share my love for skating.”

Megamall introduced the concept of junior retail anchors dedicated to health and beauty, furniture, hardware, and toys. Megamall also furthers SM’s clustering concept whereby stores offering similar merchandise were zoned into particular areas, allowing customers to easily find what they are looking for despite the mall’s size. 

Also intended for customers’ convenience was the mall’s shoe-box design. Hans explained, “Being customer friendly is not just about greeting the customer. Being customer friendly is when the customer goes to your mall and feels comfortable, and what is more comforting than not getting lost? We make it easy to find your way around. That is our kind of customer service.”

Megamall’s success was unparalleled. In its air-conditioned interiors, powered by generators, many Manila residents found relief from the long power outages caused by the energy crisis of the early 1990s. 

Troubled by political uncertainties, the earthquake of 1990, and the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991, aside from the persistent problem of living in an overpopulated  but under-serviced city, 200,000 to 300,000 people flocked to the mall everyday to entertain themselves. 

“Malling” became city-dwellers’ most-preferred form of recreation and the trend continues to this day. “With the SM shopping malls, people tell me that I changed Philippine lifestyle,” said Henry. “Families and friends spend time together in the malls. They shop, dine, and have fun, whatever age and whatever budget.”

Henry attributed Megamall’s success to its retail mix. “What they [competitors] have is shopping, dining, recreation, amusement. We offer more—cinemas, ice-skating, service clusters, an art gallery, showrooms for specific products like home furnishing, appliances, and computers.” Elizabeth further expounded on their malls’ success: “We have been in retail for 50 years. The malls are just a natural progression from running department stores. We understand the culture of our customers and we know what goods and services to provide.”

In June 1994, the SM Group went public and raised P4.7 billion, which was used to build over the next five years SM malls in Cebu, Las Piñas, Bacoor, Fairview and Iloilo.

As SM spread across the Philippines, Henry also found himself increasingly drawn to investing in the country of his birth. 

Local officials from his village of Ang-khue had been offering him properties at bargain basement prices. 

Finally, in the mid-1990s, Henry returned to China. He purchased properties in China among which was a track of land in his original hometown in Fujian province. 

According to Hans, “It was in early 1990s when he shared with family members that we should look into China. He wanted to bring the SM malls there. I have to admit, I was saying ‘What is it that my father sees in this place?’” Henry’s determination to build in China could not be deterred. If his children opted not to support his plan, he would do it on his own.

However, once again, Henry allayed his children’s doubts. According to Hans, “We looked at the map and he said ‘This is where we are, this is the city of Xiamen, this is the city of Jinjiang, and this is the city of  Szechuan. Give it 10 years and when they grow, we will be at the center of these three cities.’”

“And that is exactly what has happened.” Henry, Jr. said, “it was so provincial there, but like he did here [in Makati and North EDSA], he saw some potential… You just have to really think outside the box.”

Henry was named Management Man of the Year for 1999 by the Makati Business Club. 

The award was presented by then Vice President Gloria Arroyo on Jan. 24, 2000.

In his acceptance speech, Henry uttered words of deep gratitude and appreciation: “I thank my family—my six children who are my teammates and friends in the office and at home, and most especially my wife of 50 years, Molly, who is my lifetime companion, treasurer, adviser and best friend. Lastly, I thank God for the wonderful gift of life and the chance for me to experience it fully.” Henry, at the dawn of the new millennium, was a man in full bloom.

The Philippines has been good to Henry. His years of investment have made him one of the wealthiest men in the country. He is hailed as the “retail king” and called “the father of Philippine malls.” Through his malls and stores, he has also had  an enormous impact on Philippine recreation and became a part of the lives of millions of Filipinos. “We changed the lifestyles of the people here,” he smilingly admitted in a Time magazine interview. It would seem that Henry has it all, and yet as the 1990s drew to a close, Henry was still pushing the SM Group to new heights and even bigger projects.

Henry explained why a rich, successful nonagenarian would keep working with such passion. 

“I am always optimistic that the Philippines is not a hopeless case, contrary to what a lot of cynics claim… My investments manifest my strong confidence in the Philippine future,” he said. This unflagging faith has come to earn Henry a reputation as one of the country’s champions. 

Henry explained, “Not everything I do is purely for money. Of course, as a businessman and as head of publicly listed companies, we have to earn, but at this point in my life, there are other considerations more important besides just money.” Henry hoped that his belief in the Philippines and his willingness to put his money where his mouth is encourages other to recognize the country’s potential and invest in it.

In the first half of the 2000s, the time, energy, and resources of the SM group were devoted to its newest project, the SM Mall of Asia. The mall was envisioned to be a super-structure that would cost billions of pesos to build. 

The huge investment was not without its risks. The country was still recovering from the effects of the Asian financial crisis that saw a huge drop in the GNP, the weakening of the peso, and increasing inflation. But to Henry the potential rewards outweighed the perils. He was committed to his vision. “I wanted to create something that could contribute to Philippine tourism growth,” he said. “I wanted to build a beautiful destination for shopping, wholesome family-oriented entertainment, and leisure.”

Elizabeth admits that her father was well aware of the risk. “he knew the disadvantages. He doesn’t let his ego get head of him,” she said. “Mall of Asia was originally planned to be a very big, expansive project, but of course the Asian crisis kicked in, and a couple of years after that, we decided to scale down, redraw everything, from 500 thousand square meters to maybe 400.”

Mall of Asia opened on May 21, 2006 with a gross floor area of over 400,000 square meters. In addition to an SM Department Store, an SM Hypermarket (supermarket), 600 shops, 150 dining establishments, and 8,000 parking slots, the Mall of Asia’s main building alone boasts the country’s first IMAX theater, an Olympic-sized ice-skating rink, and the SM Science Discovery Center.

On its first day of operation, more than one million people came to see the city’s newest mall. Since then, it has welcomed over 900 million visitors. Mall of Asia has become the tourist destination that Henry envisioned.

Henry was convinced that the Philippines is an ideal tourist destination. “My biggest wish is for government, the private sector, and all of us to work together to make the Philippines the best tourism destination in Southeast Asia,” he said. He cited the country’s location, its many natural resources, and the talents and warmth of its people as sure tourism draws.

He had a simple formula that he feels could kick-start Philippine tourism. 

“The country should improve the peace-and-order situation as well as the international image of the Philippines. The focus should be on upgrading infrastructure. There should be a strong information campaign worldwide to promote the Philippines as an ideal tourism destination…Our target should be to attract 5 million tourists in the first 5 years, then go for over 10 million in 10 years.” He said, “Every time I met President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, I always told her about this dream of mine and my excitement about the potential  of Philippine tourism because I know she really wants a better Philippine economy.

His interest in Philippine tourism was apparent even in the late 1980s when he acquired properties in Baguio (the old Pines Hotel, among them) and  Tagaytay (Taal Vista Lodge). These acquisitions made a deep impression on a young stockbroker named Willie Ocier. 

“One of my memorable afternoons was that day when Mr. Sy said that Tagaytay is going to be the rest and recreation capital of the Philippines, especially Metro Manila. That was in 1987-88. At that time they were selling off Pines Hotel and Taal Vista. I told myself if Mr. Sy gets involved in this, I will too. For me, Tagaytay  Taal Vista was the catalyst. Then I started  to look for properties in Tagaytay.” Today, Willie is chairman of Bell Corp., which owns and manages the exclusive Tagaytay Highlands, a real estate development that Henry co-financed.

 “We shall keep investing in new tourist-friendly malls,” Henry said. “We are now master-planning and building a seaside tourism project called Hamilo Coast on a 5,700-hectare property in Batangas.”

Throughout the decade, the SM Group expanded. SM stores and malls opened all around the country. In addition, SM Investments Inc., the holding company of the SM group, was listed in the Philippine Stock Exchange in 2005. Roughly $550 million was raised in what was considered the largest initial public offering in Philippine history.

SM celebrates 60 years

In 2008, SM marked its 50th anniversary.   In 2018, SM marked its 60th.

Reflecting on his life, Henry said:

 “As I move on his life and work on more dreams, I realized something—there is no limit to what we can do. God is good and generous with His gifts to us. He gives us many opportunities and equal time everyday. It is up to us to make full use of them. I encourage you to have your own dream and work to make it a reality. You are young with the future before you. Remember the young boy who arrived in Manila many years ago, a stranger with nothing to his name… If I can do it, the young people of today can do it too.”

Henry became a legend of how a single life could touch and build the lives of so many others. With one of the largest conglomerates in the country whose interests span retail, shopping centers, banking, property development, and tourism, Henry’s dynamic business empire has become a wall on which the lives and livelihoods of millions of others—from daydreaming sales clerks to generations of business heirs—lean. 

As millions of Filipino children learn to say “SM,” after “Mama” and “Papa,” as a word that evokes a sweetly innocent experience of joy, Henry’s life has built a setting for indelibly human moments. There is no Filipino without an SM story to share; such is the true scale of Henry’s achievement, a life that is an inspiring reminder that dreams, followed through with vision, dedication and verve, come true. 

(Some text and pictures in this article is based on the book “I Dream: Henry Sy”.)

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